Iowa special Senate election mired in marriage

Iowa partisans are going about the business of recruiting or nominating candidates for a special election in Iowa Senate District 18, but what’s at stake goes far beyond the boundaries of the small region in eastern Iowa.

Republican Gov. Terry Branstad announced last week that he was appointing Sen. Swati Dandekar, a Marion Democrat, to the state’s Iowa Utilities Board. It’s a move that has marriage equality groups concerned the Democrats’ one-seat majority in the Iowa Senate could be eliminated, opening the door for a gay marriage ban.

“This is it. We are facing a special election, and marriage equality hangs in the balance,” Troy Price, executive director of One Iowa, said in a statement. “If we lose the seat, we face a very real chance that a marriage ban will pass a vote in the Senate. In Iowa, marriage has never been threatened like this before.”

Dendekar won in 2008 by 3,000 votes in Iowa’s 18th Senate District which encompasses suburban and rural areas outside Cedar Rapids, the state’s second largest city.

Iowa Politics notes that the district is very much in play for both parties. “As of Sept. 1, Republicans had 15,972 registered voters in that district, while Democrats had 15,759,” the politics website noted. “Independents topped both parties with 19,873 voters, according to data from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office.”

Historically, the area surrounding the Cedar Rapids suburb of Marion has trended Republican, but provided opportunities to more independently minded members of the GOP. From 1995 to 2009, for instance, the seat was held by the late Mary Lundby, who was not necessarily known for towing the party line, especially on environmental issues. Prior to Lundby’s tenure and before the census forced redistricting, the seat was held by former Secretary of State and Cedar Rapids Mayor Paul Pate, who served as co-chairman of a national task force on homelessness and hunger and essentially spearheaded an inner city housing initiative.

Dandekar, the nation’s first Indian-born American citizen to serve in a state legislature, carried on the tradition of partisan independence, first during her tenure in the Iowa House and subsequently in Senate. In the House, she was one of six Democrats not-so-fondly referred to as the “six pack” for their stances against bills like prevailing wage, which were supported by labor unions and most party activists.

But since Dandekar won her Senate seat in the fall of 2007, nearly two years prior to the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling that a legislative ban on civil marriage for gays and lesbians was a violation of the state’s equal protection clause, it’s difficult to gauge if voters in the region will maintain their traditional preference for independent candidates or if they will be swallowed within the predominantly partisan bickering that has taken shape in the wake of the Varnum decision.

And that makes groups like One Iowa, the state’s largest gay advocacy group, and Faith in Iowa, a Cedar Rapids-based coalition of people of faith who support civil marriage rights, nervous.

“Until now, we have been able to prevent a discriminatory and unconstitutional marriage ban from going on the ballot with pro-equality supporters in the Senate. But marriage equality is now facing a serious and credible threat,” Price said. “If we lose this seat, we lose a majority in the Senate and we face a marriage ban on the ballot.”

Despite the fact that the political parties are keeping their talking points centered on the fiscal issues of jobs and the economy, advocates on either side of the marriage issue are already gearing up for fight.

The slim lead in the Senate allowed Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, who campaigned on behalf of Dandekar for her Senate election, to block efforts to put a bill ending marriage equality in Iowa up for a vote. The Republican-controlled Iowa House has already passed such a bill.

But, the proposed constitutional amendment would be tough even with a win for Republicans in a special election. A constitutional amendment in Iowa must pass two consecutive general assemblies and each general assemblies by a simple majority. Each general assembly lasts two years.

The special election to determine the seat will be held on Nov. 8, and candidates have until Oct. 14 to file the necessary paperwork. National groups representing both ends of the political spectrum have already begun circulating fundraising appeals among their network of contacts.

Mathis, Dummermuth announce candidacy

While there is still time for candidates of any political party, or even those affiliated with no party, to file the necessary paperwork to run in District 18, two individuals representing opposite sides of the aisle have already stepped forward in hopes of being nominated by their respective political groups during special conventions scheduled for next week.

 
Matt Dummermuth

Matt Dummermuth, a long-standing GOP political operative and attorney in Iowa who formerly was one of three key Iowa staffers on the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000, tossed his hat into the ring Tuesday afternoon. A native of Elgin, Dummermuth now resides in Robins with his wife, Rebecca, and their three children. Rebecca is a former White House staffer in the George W. Bush administration, having served in the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives.

Most recently, Dummermuth served (albeit unconfirmed) as the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, where he worked tirelessly on anti-terrorism and child exploitation initiatives. Although his office continues to be known for such work, it is often overshadowed by involvement in the prosecution of more than 300 immigrant workers from the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville.

Dummermuth led the worksite enforcement prosecution effort following the arrest of 389 plant workers. Under his direction the office prosecuted 305 of the workers for immigration and identity theft-related charges within days of their detention in a highly controversial process that quickly became known as “fast-tracking.”

Nearly a year following the May 2008 raid in Postville and subsequent guilty pleas, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that undocumented immigrants could not be charged with aggravated identity theft without proof that they had knowingly used another person’s documents. Although the decision did not address the situation that followed Postville, it did effectively end what many feared was becoming an unfair government tactic.

Dummermuth cited a need for the state to have “genuine leaders who are not afraid to think outside the box and tackle tough issues in a principled, conservative manner” as reason for his candidacy. He says he wants to bring his background as an attorney, public servant and stakeholder in a family farm to bear on the Iowa Legislature.

“In today’s uncertain economic climate and hyper-partisan political atmosphere, the state would benefit by having more elected officials who are effective problem-solvers focused on creating a stable and sustainable government, rather than those who excel at ratcheting up rhetoric, making empty promises, and attacking opponents,” Dummermuth said in a prepared statement.

 
Liz Mathis

Liz Mathis, who is best known in eastern Iowa as a former news anchor for both KCRG-TV and KWWL-TV, announced Tuesday that she will seek the Democratic nomination. She served as a reporter, producer and anchor at KCRG from 1998 to 2007, and now co-owns the advertising agency, ME&V, with her husband, Mark. Prior to working with KCRG, she served 16 years with KWWL in Waterloo, where she became the first woman to co-anchor the evening news.

The Mathis family, which includes two children, also resides in Robins.

In addition to the family-run business, Mathis works for Four Oaks, a child welfare and juvenile justice agency, and the Affordable Housing Network and Iowa KidsNet, which are affiliates, as chief information officer. She oversees legislative advocacy, public relations, marketing and development. She serves on the Ohnward Bank board of directors, and sits on the Wartburg College Board of Regents.

“We need new policies that will help our Main Street businesses thrive, bring in business and spur job growth in our local communities,” Mathis said as part of her announcement statement. “My husband and I have experienced that first-hand in our family’s business. That’s one of many reasons I’m running. We also need to stop short-changing our educational system and we need to address support of our area’s most vulnerable children who are affected by poverty and neglect. I am passionate about those things.”

(Lynda Waddington contributed to this report.)